In the book, Invitation to Anthropology, culture is described as the “shared and negotiated systems of meaning informed by knowledge that people learn and put into practice by interpreting experience and generating behavior” (Lassiter). However, current trends in globalization and networking technology are entangling people with radically different cultural values, attitudes, and practices and compelling them to negotiate within largely Western-centric models of reality that originate far beyond village and regional borders. In Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord describes the modus operandi of consumer culture: “Considered in its own terms, the spectacle is affirmation of appearance and affirmation of all human life, namely social life, as mere appearance.”
The great paradox of the spectacle of cultures of economy is the great import it gives to the appearance of being exceptional and its aversion to individuality at the same time. An acquired taste (culture in other words) is something that a good marketing campaign will never require of its consumer, it will only require that the consumer believes the illusion without question. For instance, Starbucks tells you you’re a “hipster” coffee connoisseur if you buy their product that has been stripped of the roasted acidic taste of coffee, loaded with milk and sugar, and frothed almost to oblivion: because its more accessible, ensuring that the largest number of people possible will find it agreeable. As a brand identity, it seeks to convince customers that they are taking part in a long cultural tradition of the coffee house as a community meeting place. As the book Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide explains, “The essayist Joseph Addison, who wrote regularly for The Spectator, described scenes in which ‘Knots of Theorists’ fed by ’steams of the Coffee Pot’ would dispose of monarchies and governments ‘in less than a Quarter of an Hour’” (Drucker, McVarish 88). However, today the customer is relegated to a spectator within Starbucks well-executed monopoly of appearances, which recoils from controversy. Guy Debord explains, “The first phase of the domination of the economy over social life brought into the definition of all human realization the obvious degradation of ‘being’ into ‘having.’ The present phase of total occupation of social life by the accumulated results of the economy leads to a generalized sliding of ‘having’ into ‘appearing,’ from which all actual ‘having’ must draw its immediate prestige and its ultimate function.”
I’m a big fan of Guy Debord, but I’m not completely against this idea of capitalizing on fantasy. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan argues that our principal medium for self-identity, perception, remembering, and intersubjectivity converge in fantasy. Nevertheless, I recently watched the documentary film, “The Perfect Cappuccino,” which starts as one coffee lover’s quest to find the perfect cappuccino and ends up being an exposé on the detrimental effect of consumerism on culture. If the universal motto for business is “the customer is always right,” what happens to authenticity when the customer is completely oblivious to the taste and culture of the genuine artifact? Much like big agriculture, big business tends to prefer productivity and efficiency to diversity, resulting in a market monoculture. However, the common thread that ties everything together is the lowest common denominator of culture, the self-satisfying taste of salt, fat, and sugar. As the anthropologist James P. Spradley wrote, “ethnography seeks to document the existence of alternative realities and to describe these realities in their own terms… It says to investigators of human behavior, ‘before you impose your theories on the people you study, find out how those people define the world.’”
Social media is a web-based technology that enables and mediates networked communications between individuals, communities and organizations throughout the world. Online users are encouraged to use these services to post on their movements, define their relationships, discuss their political and religious beliefs, and inform on their friends. However, the current centralized architecture of dominant social media platforms are inherently susceptible to legal and market incentives that increasingly encourage the sharing and collection of more and more private data with governments and commercial 3rd parties. This commoditization of personal data has also resulted in the balkanization of communications between users of various competitor services, which is counter to the very concept of social networking. The current model is one in which private data is voraciously hoarded within a competitive system under the assumption that companies and governments will continue to respect the rights and privacy of online users. In The Shallows, Nicholas Carr asserts that the interactivity, hyperlinking, searchability and multimedia of the Internet promote an intellectual ethic that “fragments content and disrupts our concentration” (Carr 91). E-books and electronic readers are marketed for features such as links, videos and interactive graphs that only serve to distract readers from the deep-concentrated thought that authors have long assumed to be central to the process of reading. Technologists have responded to the issue of information overload by tracking Internet users interests and creating personal, but largely opaque, filters of the entire Internet, which the internet activist, Eli Pariser, argues may be fundamentally changing the way we experience the world through the Internet by adjusting what we read, see, and hear into a self-affirming filter bubble.
"The issue could be that much of the theoretical insights and developments of new media and communication technologies have reflected the imaginations of technologists and those from the metropolitan West."
The social and cultural shifts of the digital age bares many similarities to the changes during the Industrial Revolution, which brought about swift and massive social and political transformations throughout Europe and the United States. In the mid-1800s, rapid technological developments in mass production created new markets and consumer products along with new social and political problems. In his book, Pioneers of Modern Design, Nikolaus Pevsner wrote of the state of consumerism during the transition period as a “complete freedom for the manufacturer to produce anything shoddy and hideous because the consumer had no tradition, no education, no leisure and was, like the producer, a victim of this vicious circle” (Pivsner 24). Similarly, today the new technologies of the digital age have flooded into people’s lives and, concurrently, are creating a multitude of new problems faster than they can be addressed. In place of the manifestations of the mass-production of material goods and rapid urbanization, the digital era is being characterized by the massive proliferation and sharing of information that is challenging our concepts of privacy, property and public discourse.
However, as a universal communication medium, it largely reflects what people make of it. Those involved in observing the evolution and local appropriation of new media and communication technology have come to realize that what determines what a particular technology becomes is largely founded on culture. Therefore, the subsequent consequences are created in the context of each place, not given in the technology (Miller, Horst 11). Horst and Miller’s 2006 study of mobile phones and poverty in Jamaica showed that generalizations about the use of phones for entrepreneurship and finding jobs in other regions may not work for Jamaica, where they found a rather different pattern of economic impact. The anthropologist, Bart Barendregt, has observed that even quite mundane uses of digital communication such as chatting, flirting, or complaining about the government become genres quite specific to Indonesia rather than cloned from elsewhere (Miller, Horst 19). The issue could be that much of the theoretical insights and developments of new media and communication technologies have reflected the imaginations of technologists and those from the metropolitan West. When in fact, the majority of the worlds population live in rural India and China, the conceptual framework of technologists rarely consider the larger cultural, social and political implications of the technologies that they develop.
During her work on the Body Games, a project to design a digitally-enhanced playground meant to encourage children and young people to be more physically active, the design anthropologist, Mette Gislev Kjaersgaard, found the interdisciplinary team of researchers were not simply centered-around a common mission to save children from obesity and lethargy, but each was also operating with implicit agendas relevant to their field of expertise and backgrounds. The playground company was interested in winning back customers and children by introducing elements from computer games and sports into its equipment, computer scientists were primarily interested in particular interpretations of the possible forms and uses of three-dimensional (3D) positioning technology and various interactive inputs and outputs for a physical computer game. Play researchers were interested in a particular theoretical perspective on play as “formulas,” and designers were most interested in materials and the physical environment (Kjaersgaard 52). Brendon Clark explains that collaborative project work “seeks to incorporate the knowledge and skills of multiple people with varying relationships to an issue, varying interests and agendas, coming from different practice traditions, and positioned differently as members of various organizations and communities (208). The cultural, social, and political implications of globalization and communication technologies are already being questioned, analyzed, and represented by all the various stakeholders, but in this age of rapid technological progress and development, the anthropological tradition of contextualization and interpretation that critically examines existing, and often implicit, conceptual frameworks is what may be most desperately needed.
Marshall Mcluhan’s great dictum, “The Medium Is the Message,” seeks to imbue an understanding that media and design decisions affect how people think, act, communicate, and understand the world. What if the main interest in new media and communication technology, like in ethnography, was to illustrate cultural diversity and the power of culture in people’s lives? As communication technology continues to pervade every area of our lives and even every society across the globe the emerging field of design anthropology and the study of human behavior and interrelationships in computer-mediated environments could prove paramount to informing and critiquing the development of new digital platforms that will ultimately confront questions of worth and cultural significance within the newly emerging “global village.” Many critics of new media and communication technologies posit that the problems that we are facing with its advent is inherent to the technology, however much like the industrial revolution, these developments simply occurred faster than we could infuse our shared practices and perspectives into their development. As technology evolves and becomes appropriated by every society across the globe, we should broaden our perspective from solely how these technologies are innovative and economically valuable, to also include how we can harness its design to translate human value systems into inclusive tangible experiences.
Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains. 2011.
Clark, Brendon. “Generating Publics Through Design Activity.” Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice. 2013.
Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. 2002.
Drucker, Johanna; McVarish, Emily. Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide, 2nd edition. 2009.
Horst, Heather A; Miller, Daniel. “The Digital and the Human: A Prospectus for Digital Anthropology.” Digital Anthropology. 2012.
Lassiter, Luke Eric. Invitation To Anthropology, 3rd edition. 2009.
Kjaersgaard, Mette Gislev. “(Trans)forming Knowledge and Design Concepts in the Design Workshop.” Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice. 2013.
Pevsner, Nikolaus. Pioneers of Modern Design: From William Morris to Walter Gropius. 1991.